Thursday, February 16, 2017

In Iceland: Learning a new language, or better, becoming children again

Hey everyone!

My good friend Sofia, who connected me with the blog on her university website which enabled me to write my article on the current political situation in the United States back in December, has recently written a few brilliant blog posts on our time in Iceland on that same site.

I will be sharing them with you all, starting with one today on studying the language and the history of Núpur, the school where we studied. The articles are all in Italian, which is why I will be translating them to English for anyone interested who cannot read Italian, but I will also link to the original articles for their beautiful photography.

Here we go!

"In Iceland: Learning a new language, or better, becoming children again"

Af hverju vilt þú að læra íslensku? I hear this asked of me suddenly, after having lain a little dictionary and notebook for my notes on my desk. Af því að... íslenska er gamalt tungumál. I stutter slightly, intimidated by the stares of the people around me. "Why do you want to learn Icelandic?" "Because it's an ancient language..." Unfortunately in my mother tongue this motivation sounds improbable and uncoordinated.

Icelandic is an Indo-European language from the Germanic language group, it can be read on Wikipedia. Among Scandinavian languages, it's the one that has remained the most unchanged through the centuries, for obvious reasons of the isolation of this island of glaciers. Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish have all lost a great deal of their grammatical structure and at the same time absorbed a great deal of vocabulary from Romance languages. The Icelandic language has remained so unchanged, it is said, that with a bit of effort, those who speak it can read the Nordic sagas - though it's good to quantify that bit. Unfortunately, I have no idea of the stories told by those sagas. Halldór Laxness, winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize, none of whose books I've read, wrote in Icelandic. Sometimes Sigur Rós sings in Icelandic, when they don't invent the words. As I observe the snow on the mountains beyond the bus window, the usual, chatwinian question follows me: what am I doing here? The response is even more unusual: I want to study this language. 

I'm at Núpur, this lost locality on Dýrafjörður, in the Westfjords of Iceland. Here, between the mountains and the sea, there are only three white buildings and a little church. A few kilometers before, a farm and a botanical garden; a few kilometers beyond, the road turns to dirt and is lost to the sun on the horizon. In 1907 one Sigtryggur Guðlaugsson, a Protestant pastor, founded a school here for the children of the farmers who labored on this cold and hostile land. For decades the school symbolized the national education system and, in spite of the distance from the capital, hosted dozens of students every year. I walk through the long corridors that divide the classrooms and I feel as though their faces in their class photos are observing me, like a deja vu from the movie Dead Poets Society. In every decade different haircuts can be seen, which reach their maximum length in the seventies, and beginning in the eighties the numbers of students begin to thin. The school, in fact, was closed in the nineties and has since become a hotel. Except, that is, for Háskólasetur Vestfjarða, the University Center of the Westfjords, which organizes an annual language course here for university students. And it is so that I find myself among thirty or so young people from all around the globe, on the borders of the known world, everyone with an Icelandic-to-something-else dictionary and a different motivation. I want to learn the language of my grandparents, says an American girl, granddaughter of fishermen who emigrated to the luckier Atlantic coast. I want to be able to read the Norse sagas, says a guy who clearly recognizes their literary worth. I want to study geology here, says a Croatian physics major. Everyone has their own reasons and everyone attempts to answer, with effort, the question: af hverju vilt þú að læra íslensku?

Studying a language is like becoming children again: one's expressive capabilities are reset, and so it is necessary to slowly reconstruct a basic vocabulary to say: Mér líður vel í dag (I feel well today), or (more importantly) það er skítaveður í dag (what shitty weather!). One doesn't have the ways of saying in English or Italian easily available anymore, not even words of vaguely Greco-Latin origins, in which we shelter ourselves because we find in them the comfort of known meaning. Icelandic has (almost) no linguistic borrowings. "Telephone" is "sími," "computer is "tölva," and an idea is "hugmynd" (which, literally translated, means "mind-picture"). Electricity is "rafmagn" (from 'raf,' amber, giving it the same the same etymology of the Greek word 'elektron'). Philosophy is 'heimspeki,' the wisdom of the world. In front of these words and their dry and sincopathic pronunciation we are blocked, we trip, we stutter.  Studying Icelandic is like going back to high school: everything is declined and there are the usual three genders - masculine, feminine, and neuter. It is so that we discover that the word fjord is declined "fjörður, fjörð, firði, fjarða," and based on the verb or the preposition that precedes it, it is necessary to use the correct case. Twice a week a bus brings us from Núpur to Ísafjörður, a tiny village of 2,600 souls that is the de facto capital of this area, in which less than 2% of the island's population resides. Only after studying the declensions do I understand why the name of the town isn't always the same. "Við förum til Ísafjarða," we go to Ísafjörður, because til requires the genitive; þegar við vorum á Ísafirði," while we were in Ísafjörður, (because location requires the dative) - this is how Icelanders talk, even declining their own names, and so it is no longer possible to understand anything. "Ég tala við Sofiu," the professor says in class as an example. It is necessary to be precise, otherwise the meaning crumbles in your teeth while you try to differently pronounce the letters of an alphabet that no longer exists, namely eth (ð) and thorn (þ). It is necessary to remember the several rules of pronunciation: the dry sound that transforms ll into "tl" and fn into "pn". It is by no means a coincidence that the name of the famous volcano Eyjafjallajökull  became a known tongue-twister, and that the Icelanders laughed at all the journalists announcing its eruption in 2010. 

To improve our pronunciation, we sing folk songs as a choir every week, and continuously watch comedy videos of Jón Gnarr, ex-mayor of Reykjavik and alumnus of Núpur. To better understand the solitude of these valleys, where everyone knows each other's secrets and the winters are long, we watch many movies (kvikmyndir - fast images) that were even filmed in these quiet villages. To better understand the intricate story of the Gísli Saga, set on this very fjord more than a thousand years ago, we trace the hero's family tree on paper, and so understand the Norse story that does not differ greatly from the Greek tragedies: family, revenge, destiny. Slowly we decipher the place where we live and the questions asked of us, always with greater ease, and especially, we are able to explain ourselves in greater detail, slowly ceasing to resemble children, lost in the long light of summer. We slowly find the Ariadne's thread that connects sounds and words and gives them a precise meaning. The greatest satisfaction is asking the passing old lady for directions on the street and understanding her response, understanding a few conversations on the bus ride back to Reykjavik or the headlines in the morning paper. 

Icelandic is spoken by barely three and a half thousand people in all the world, fewer people than the dialect of my city. Before getting on the plane to Keflavik, many asked me: Why not a more useful language? Why not French or German? Maybe they were right. I won't have many chances to speak Icelandic in Italy (even if I bought many books by Laxnes and Stefánsson, and a copy of the Gísli Saga, some poetry books, and even The Little Prince in its local version. And now I can understand when Jónsi of Sigur Rós sings in his native language as opposed to wordless laments in falsetto). But I got on that plane anyway, and discovered, more than anything else, that Borges was right, when he wrote:  

"Iceland, I have dreamed of you long / Since that morning when my father / Gave to his son that I have been and have not died / A version of the Völsunga Saga / That now is deciphering my gloom / With the help of the slow dictionary. / When the body tires of its man, / when the fire declines and turns to ash, / Good is the resigned learning / Of an infinite undertaking; I have chosen / That of your language, this Latin of the North / That encompassed the steppes and the seas / Of a hemisphere and resounded in Byzantium / And in the virgin borders of America. / I know I won't know, but the eventual gifts of the search / Await me. / Not the fruit wisely unattainable. / Those who inquire will feel the same / The stars or the series of numbers... / Only love, ignorant love, Iceland."

I imagine the old Argentine writer, almost blind and bent over his dictionary, trying to study this Latin of the North but knowing that he will never know it, but knowing that the probable gifts of his research await him. That is how it is for me, as I don't study languages at university, and after three weeks am missing the good espresso of the coffee shop below my house: I know I won't know it, but it doesn't matter, because what does is the unexpected of the search; what matters is being curious, inquiring as to the reason behind a certain etymology (he who discovers an etymology with pleasure, Borges always wrote), trying to understand a story even without subtitles. 

For the first time, I came back from a trip with not only a handful of photos and some souvenirs, but with an entire grammar in my head, which I will continue to study in spite of its practical uselessness - because joy is being able to read a poem and understand its meaning, confront people who live in other places on this planet and learn a language only for the pleasure of doing it. 

Thank you all for reading. Be back soon!

A picture of some of the buildings of Núpur - the main building in the middle, and some houses where members of the staff live to the right and left.

A picture of the road beyond Núpur, facing the beach on the shores of Dýrafjörður. 

Ísafjörður's city center.

No comments:

Post a Comment